BEREA, Ohio -- The screaming from inside the locker room reverberated through the concrete walls, audible to anyone standing just outside.
The Cleveland Browns had just lost a fourth straight game in Week 7 in Baltimore, putting their season on edge before the midway point.
According to multiple team sources, the heated postgame exchange involved outspoken rookie defensive tackle Perrion Winfrey, who had called out Cleveland’s defensive backs.
That same game, star defensive end Jadeveon Clowney had refused to play on first or second down because he was upset about a game plan he believed favored All-Pro defensive end Myles Garrett over him.
Ironically, Cleveland’s beleaguered defense had finally shined that day.
The Browns mostly contained Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson. And late in the fourth quarter, linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah forced a fumble to give Cleveland a chance at a game-winning drive.
However, that came up short, and the Browns fell to 2-6.
The defense would continue to play significantly better the rest of the season. But the damage to Cleveland’s once-promising playoff aspirations had already been done.
On Jan. 8, on the heels of another deflating defeat in Pittsburgh, coach Kevin Stefanski fired third-year defensive coordinator Joe Woods.
“We didn’t necessarily have the right mix in all areas,” general manager Andrew Berry said last week, when asked about a defense that underperformed on the field and endured a multitude of disciplinary issues off it. “With the margins being so razor thin, you really do have to look at everything and make sure that everything is tied up in order to win football games.”
An underachieving defense wasn’t the only reason the Browns suffered a second straight losing season. A trade for quarterback Deshaun Watson backfired in its first year and hamstrung the Browns before the season even started.
In August, Watson was suspended 11 games for violating the NFL’s personal conduct policy for committing sexual assault, as defined by the league, on massage therapists. And multiple players acknowledged that the attention surrounding him created a distraction during training camp as they prepared for the season.
The offense still performed admirably behind backup quarterback Jacoby Brissett. But when Watson finally returned in Week 13, the offensive efficiency cratered.
Leading to another lost season in Cleveland.
IN WEEK 2, the Browns seemed on their way to their first 2-0 start in 29 years. After Nick Chubb’s 7-yard touchdown, the Browns led the New York Jets 30-17 with under two minutes to go.
Then, anything that could go wrong did. Kicker Cade York missed an extra point. The Browns secondary left Corey Davis wide open for an easy 66-yard touchdown. The Jets recovered the onside kick. And 37-year-old, third-string quarterback Joe Flacco tossed the game-winning touchdown in the final seconds. Not since 2001 had any team blown a 13-point lead that late in the game.
Miscommunications would plague the secondary for the rest of the year, even after Woods later simplified the defensive calls.
On third-and-long in the season finale in Pittsburgh, the Browns turned Steelers receiver George Pickens loose for a wide-open 31-yard touchdown. The coverage bust put Pittsburgh up for good and on its way to a 28-14 victory.
"I wouldn't say it was too complex schematically, but I would say in certain moments in the game, maybe we didn't need to trick ourselves trying to trick the other team," veteran safety John Johnson III said Monday. "Maybe we could just line up, get our cleats in the ground and make plays, because that's when we were at our best.”
Despite the coverage breakdowns, the Browns’ pass defense still proved elite. Cleveland finished third in total QBR defense (47.9) and fourth in opposing completion percentage (60.7%).
The Browns, however, could never resolve a hapless run defense -- 11th worst in total rush defense EPA (-23.11) over the last decade.
After their loss to the Jets, the Atlanta Falcons uncovered this gaping weakness. At one point, Atlanta ran the ball on 14 consecutive plays in a comeback victory. The game provided a blueprint for Cleveland’s future opponents, who in turn ran at will on the Browns, as well.
Despite losing both starting defensive tackles from last season, Cleveland invested little to replace them. The Browns leaned on recently drafted tackles, like Jordan Elliott and Tommy Togiai, instead. Only four teams spent less on the interior of the defensive line than Cleveland did ($9.4 million) this past season, according to Over The Cap.
The Browns underestimated how much their inexperienced and undersized front would drag down the rest of the defense. Season-ending injuries to inside linebackers Anthony Walker Jr., Jacob Phillips and Sione Takitaki only exacerbated the problem.
“When the performance occurs like that, it is never just one thing,” Berry said. “I would like to say it’s a silver bullet [that would fix the issue] but it’s realistically a combination of factors between really how you deploy the players, the players you have and also just a little bit of luck in terms of health, as well.”
The early losses to the Jets and Falcons set the tone for the rest of the season. And as one starter noted, the team felt like it was chasing those losses for the rest of the season.
And never could overcome them.
A WEEK BEFORE his firing, Woods admitted that the defense had dealt with “multiple issues” off the field.
Early on in the season, Johnson III publicly questioned the commitment level of some of the younger players.
Winfrey was benched for the Jets game for a disciplinary reason. He was inactive the week after the Ravens game (Berry was later spotted speaking with Winfrey in the corner of the visiting locker room in Baltimore).
Clowney was sent home after he blasted the team and was left behind for the Steelers game.
Safety Grant Delpit didn’t start the Week 10 game at Miami for an undisclosed discipline reason.
Even Garrett was benched in Week 15 against the New Orleans Saints for showing up late during the week.
"Way too many,” Johnson III said of Cleveland’s discipline issues defensively. “You want to focus on winning, focus on football. It's hard to do that when you've got [all that] small stuff. It's a job. It's a profession. You’ve got [to] come ready every single day. Maybe that [new defensive coordinator] will be a spark for us. … We’re a young team. So stuff like that happens. But we need a sense of urgency. All over the building.”
Garrett also missed the Falcons game after wrecking his car while driving home from the Browns training facility. He was cited for speeding and had to play through a shoulder injury he suffered in the accident all year.
Garrett still had another fabulous season. He tied his franchise record with 16 sacks, despite being double-teamed more often (31.4%) than any other edge rusher in the league.
But as people in the organization pointed out, the mild-mannered Garrett was among those unable to fill the locker room leadership vacuum defensively, which allowed so many problems to persist.
“I think the bigger focus is effectiveness of leadership as opposed to necessarily style of leadership,” Berry said, when asked about the defensive leadership void and the need for more vocal leaders in the locker room. “Ultimately, are we getting the results and outcomes that are desired? People are different leaders in different ways. … I would probably focus more on effectiveness.”
THE WEEK OF Watson’s return, the buzz inside Cleveland’s training facility was palpable.
Watson had turned heads during his ramp-up in practice. While the Browns were 4-7, multiple people inside the organization privately expressed hope that Watson could propel them to the postseason, even though he hadn’t played in 700 days.
Watson’s rusty -- and underwhelming -- play quickly quashed that optimism.
In six games, he posted a QBR of 38.6, which ranked 28th in the league, just one spot ahead of Denver’s Russell Wilson (37.0), the other quarterback who changed teams via blockbuster trade last offseason.
Watson, the NFL’s 2020 passing champ, completed just 58.2% of his passes; Cleveland’s offense scored only eight touchdowns, three of which came in a second-half outburst in Washington.
Watson also took a league-high 20 sacks over that stretch, even as his offensive line ranked sixth in pass block win rate (and third overall on the season). His tendency to hold on to the ball too long resulted in numerous holding penalties from his line, which struggled to adjust to his free-wheeling, scrambling style after protecting the stationary and steady Brissett for 11 games (Watson led the AFC in sacks taken in 2018, 2019 and 2020, as well).
“Of course, it didn’t meet the expectations,” Watson said of his play. “As far as just being able to play football again, get out there and knock some rust off, have some ups, have some downs and have some in-betweens and really get the feel of how we want to operate as an offense and what we look forward to as the Cleveland Browns, it definitely [accomplished] that. I’m excited. I’m definitely looking forward to this future for the Cleveland Browns, the organization and this team.”
The future of the Browns moving forward hinges almost entirely on whether Watson can recapture the form he displayed with the Texans.
Cleveland won’t have its first-round pick again this year due to the Watson trade. The Browns will also begin to feel the salary-cap crunch of Watson’s NFL-record $230 million fully guaranteed contract (provided he doesn’t restructure his deal this offseason to kick that can down the road).
Watson still faces two civil lawsuits from massage therapists who have accused him of inappropriate sexual misconduct (Watson has settled 23 other lawsuits). One of those could go to trial in the spring, attorney Tony Buzbee has said.
Stefanski, meanwhile, could have the hottest head-coaching seat in the league to begin next year after consecutive losing seasons.
He has hired former Detroit Lions head coach Jim Schwartz as the team’s defensive coordinator to fix the Browns’ defense on the field -- and reestablish a culture of accountability off it.
Stefanski will also have to reconfigure his offensive schemes around Watson’s skill set.
“Part of this offseason is making sure that we are putting all of those things together,” Stefanski said. “Just tapping into those things even more and drilling down specifically into what Deshaun does really well and put together an offense around it.”
This latest Browns regime has arrived at its crossroads after betting all its chips on Watson.
One more lost season could prove to be one too many.